Tolkien’s Translation of Jonah Finally Escapes the Belly of the Estate

Tolkien in 1972.

J. R. R. Tolkien in 1972.

Brendan N. Wolfe’s article “Tolkien’s Translation of Jonah” in the current issue of the Journal of Inklings Studies makes available for the first time the original version of the translation of Jonah he produced for the Jersualem Bible. (Subscription required.)

An earlier plan to publish the original translation in 2009 was canceled for reasons unknown.

Published in 1966 just after the Second Vatican Council, the Jerusalem Bible was a translation of the Holy Scriptures created for Roman Catholics. And as the Journal’s editor Dr. Judith Wolfe explains, Tolkien’s contribution was subjected to editing before it saw print:

The version of Tolkien’s translation that was eventually published in the Jerusalem Bible was not the author’s original submission, but a collaborative effort, heavily edited by a style editor who had been employed to standardize the grammar and vocabulary of the various translators who had contributed to the Jerusalem Bible.

With kind permission of Tolkien’s Estate, the Journal of Inklings Studies is now able to make available Tolkien’s original translation from Bodleian Manuscript. A research article by Brendan Wolfe on the history and features of the translation will accompany the text.

Contrary to what I would have expected, Tolkien did not translate Jonah from an ancient language but from French, according to J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment edited by Michael D.C. Drout.

Because of time, Tolkien accepted the book of Jonah, which he then seems to have translated from French. [Father Anthony Jones, head of the translation project] then checked it against the Hebrew and Green and revised it. Jones’s initial invitation assures Tolkien more than once that knowledge of the languages was not necessary…. Jones makes it clear that he was inviting Tolkien onto the board because of Tolkien’s expertise in English philology and because Jones was taken with The Lord of the Rings, not because of any supposed expertise in Hebrew on Tolkien’s part.

It will be interesting to discover what Brendan N. Wolfe has to say on that score.

Readers have long known that the Jerusalem Bible’s version of Jonah makes no reference to a whale. The text reads:

2:1 Yahweh had arranged that a great fish should be there to swallow Jonah, and Jonah remained in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.

This, at least, matches the interpretation Tolkien discussed with his son Michael in a 1957 letter:

Incidentally, if you look at Jonah you’ll find that the ‘whale’ – it is not really said to be a whale, but a big fish – is quite unimportant. The real point is that God is much more merciful than ‘prophets’, is easily moved by penitence, and won’t be dictated to even by high ecclesiastics whom he has himself appointed.

Tolkien’s other work on the Jerusalem Bible included revisions of the English translation of Job done by Andrew Keeney. However, Tolkien insisted in a letter that Father Jones gave him too much credit overall for his role in the project.

Naming me among the ‘principal collaborators’ was an undeserved courtesy on the part of the editor of the Jerusalem Bible. I was consulted on one or two points of style, and criticized some contributions of others. I was originally assigned a large amount of text to translate, but after doing some necessary preliminary work I was obliged to resign owing to pressure of other work, and only completed ‘Jonah’, one of the shortest books.

4 thoughts on “Tolkien’s Translation of Jonah Finally Escapes the Belly of the Estate

  1. “Readers have long known that the Jerusalem Bible’s version of Jonah makes no reference to a whale”
    Aret there any bible versions that do make reference to a whale? I haven’t found any. The Hebrew is very clear, referring to a “dag gadol”, which is a big fish or a great fish.
    A different puzzle is the question of why this version appears to have renumbered the verses. I’ve just looked at several other bible versions, and all of them (including the Douay, the only one that I know off-hand is a Catholic version) have that verse as 1:17. Why would the New Jerusalem editors have taken it upon themselves to move that one verse from Chapter 1 into Chapter 2? Other than that move (and renumbering all of the other verses of chapter 2), the rest of the verse numbering in Jonah appears to match every other version.

  2. Morris: I had made a special effort to find the 1966 text, not the 1985 text of the New Jerusalem Bible, so thanks for alerting me to the fact that I got the NJB in spite of myself. However, I have now located a link to the 1966 text (if it works here, it is The verse reads the same in both editions.

    As to your question whether any Bible versions refer to a whale, while the Authorized Version of 1611 also uses “big fish” in Jonah, when Jesus refers to the story in Matthew it’s translated as whale.

    The Wikipedia entry on Jonah suggests when Jerome translated the Greek text into Latin in the fourth century, he used the Latin equivalent of “big fish” in Jonah, and a different Latin word in Matthew which only became synonymous with whale at a later date.

    Wikipedia also points out the Jonah story is repeated in the Qur’an, and in Islam Jonah is referred to as “The One of the Whale,” though apparently the text itself only refers to a “big Fish.”

  3. The English-language Jerusalem Bible was conceived as a vehicle to carry a translation of the notes and commentaries of a French-language Bible, which Jones (the editor) wanted to make available to English-language readers.

    Consequently it was considered less important that the English Bible text show original scholarship based directly on the Hebrew and Greek than that it be consistent with the textual decisions and interpretations made by the French translators, so that it would match up with the descriptions in the notes. So Jones sought translators well-versed in French, so that they could distinguish between what was Biblical interpretation and what was merely French literary style.

    He also wanted translators with a fine English literary style, and his conclusion, after reading The Lord of the Rings, that Tolkien was one such was a real counterblast to critics who denigrate that book’s style.

    Ironically, the result was considered so much better a translation than previous English-language Catholic Bibles that it’s appeared in several editions without the French notes and commentaries which were the original reason for its existence.

  4. Morris: I have two other print Bibles which both have this verse as 2:1, so this numbering doesn’t originate with the Jerusalem Bible. Chapter and verse numbering is not part of the original text; they were concocted by scholars over the centuries, and there are a number of variations. See, e.g. the Wikipedia article on “Chapters and verses of the Bible,” which says, “Some chapter divisions also occur in different places, e.g. 1 Chronicles 5:27–41 in Hebrew Bibles is numbered as 1 Chronicles 6:1–15 in Christian translations.”

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